Decisions behind the news

Robert Anthony Howard, 19, of Muscatine has been charged with second-degree sexual abuse after confessing, according to court records, to the abuse of an 18-month-old boy.

After reading this story, a friend on Facebook asked: What does the fact that he is the grandson of a former councilman have to do with anything?

Here was my reply:

This question deserves an answer because Bob Howard is someone I know from the service club to which we both belong and he is also one of my Facebook friends. There is a pretty good chance he will read this even if he chooses not to participate in the discussion.

We had a discussion in the newsroom about this decision. It was my decision to report the relationship between Robert E. Howard, the former councilman, and Robert A. Howard. The similarity in their names and the fact that they live a block apart on the same street in a relatively small town, in my opinion, are enough to make readers who don’t already know ask themselves when reading the story: “I wonder if they are related?”

Even when I don’t like it — because the news involves someone I know — a goal of reporting is to not leave your readers asking questions.

Additionally, because Bob Howard is fairly well known, at least some readers would already know that Robert A. Howard is his grandson. My belief is that some of those who know would reach one of two conclusions if we didn’t make the connection in the story:
1. No one at the Journal knew or thought to ask.
2. The staff at the Journal knew and for whatever reason chose not to report it, which would make some of those readers ask: “I wonder what else they know down there and deliberately withhold.”

Both of those are bad conclusions.

In our newsroom discussion, the only real reason anyone brought up for not making this connection in the story is that Bob Howard is a former city councilman. As recently as a month ago, however, he was on the City Council. In 2008, he ran as the Republican nominee for the state Legislature against Rep. Nathan Reichert, a Muscatine Democrat.

And that leads me to another element of this decision — not the main reason behind it, but a reason nonetheless. In reporting over the past year about a legal investigation of Reichert’s father, Karl, and the criminal charges that were filed against him late last year, we have identified Karl Reichert as Nathan’s father for the same reasons outlined here.

Some readers have criticized this decision, saying it was motivated by my political beliefs among other things. In my opinion, it is best to treat these stories the same way and let readers draw their own conclusions even though it’s the kind of decision you make knowing that some readers won’t like it.

2 thoughts on “Decisions behind the news

  • As in many jobs, Chris, you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t! (I never swear in a public forum.)
    It’s a really sad story, and I’m sure the accused (but innocent until proven guilty, even if he HAS confessed) young man’s family is heartbroken…but we still need to remember who the real victim is here – and I’m delighted that you ‘re not (and I assume won’t be) publishing his name.

  • Thanks, Lori. I long ago accepted the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t aspect of what I do. And you’re right, we will not be reporting the victim’s name.

    Here is an example of how readers are responding at http://www.muscatinejournal.com. I’m debating if I should respond by posting a link to this blog:

    ” This reporter (Beaudette sic.) had absolutely no reason to name this perverts grandfather by name. It added nothing to the story. It provided no information to the public regarding the crime or the criminal. It provided no basis for the public to better understand the story. Perhaps the reporter was attempting to insinuate that criminal behavior in someway backtracks through a family gene pool? I think it more likely that the intent of the Journal was to disparage this person (the grandfather) for political purposes since he has run for state office and may choose to run again. The Journal consistently displays a liberal bias and this particular person holds a more conservative view of the world.
    This is pure sensationalism, nothing more. There is absolutely no good reason to name the person’s grandfather except to sensationalize the story. I think this borders on discrimination against this person since the Journal doesn’t print the name of every person’s grandfather that is arrested for this type crime.
    the Journal owes Robert Howard a first page apology. This man freely gave of his time an talent on our city council and deserves better than this.
    Lastly, I’m certain this type of kindergarten journalism doesn’t help when people are deciding to run for public office locally. Now they have to worry about getting slammed for the deeds of their grandchildren, even after they’ve left office. Bad journalism. “

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